Radhika laments absence of a holistic Sri Lankan identity
Insists peace should be linked to human rights
From Naomi Gunasekara in Montreal, Canada
The desperate struggle of Sri Lankans to establish a Sri Lankan identity reflecting the aspirations of various groups has resulted in an appalling human rights record for the country, said Sri Lanka’s top human rights expert at an awards ceremony held in Montreal, Canada earlier this week.

Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, who chairs the National Human Rights Commission and is director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), was the recipient of McGill University’s Robert S Litvack Human Rights Memorial Award named after a McGill law graduate who was a tireless advocate for aboriginal rights.

“The problem with Sri Lanka is that there is not one idea of what Sri Lanka is and the contest over that idea has become vicious and brutal, fed by underlying material grievances,” said Dr. Coomaraswamy, addressing a gathering of lawyers, human rights activists and scholars on a chilly Montreal evening.

According to Dr Coomaraswamy, the problem with Sri Lanka is that for the Sinhala Buddhist majority, the idea of Sri Lanka is a “Sinhala Buddhist land where the majority will must prevail and where the markers of the Sinhala Buddhist identity must be celebrated above all others.”

For Tamils living in the north and the east, Sri Lanka is put forward as two nations where the north and the east are a separate ethnic and cultural space requiring either independence or power sharing with the Sinhalese Buddhist south.

While some see Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society where pluralism is required, for Marxists, Sri Lanka is all about the rural poor and the welfare state, she said, indicating that such conflicted identities mean that Sri Lanka is a place where these groups want to conquer and eliminate the other. “No one attempts to formulate a more holistic vision that tries to incorporate all these ideas in an inclusive concept of Sri Lanka where all these yearnings find expression within a plural whole. We are still waiting for the Messiah or a time where everyone will give up in a state of fatigue and sit down and draft the model social contract for an island that has had more than its share of hardship,” she said.

Dr. Coomaraswamy’s comments came as Sri Lanka’s human rights record was being discussed at various international fora given the recent attacks on the National Human Rights Commission and the requests made by the Asian Centre for Human Rights to publish a report on the Bindunuwewa massacre. There have also been reports of custodial torture and also increased recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE.

Conscious of her role as an international human rights activist and UN Special Rapportuer on Violence against Women, her speech titled “Human Rights at home and in the world” addressed issues such as detention camps, torture and human rights in the context of the “war on terror” and women’s rights.

A strong believer that the peace process cannot progress without the parties to the negotiations signing a human rights agreement, she told the Sunday Times: “There is a belief among some people engaged in conflict resolution that raising sensitive human rights issues would prevent one from coming to an agreement for solving the conflict peacefully. But the fact of the matter is that unless you deal with human rights from the very beginning, you will find that the peace agreement is not sustainable.”

According to Dr Coomaraswamy, a human rights agreement would keep the negotiating parties in place where human rights are concerned, despite the difficulties of enforcing such an agreement. In the absence of such an agreement, she points out, human rights violations would threaten the ceasefire and the peace process and make them illegitimate in the eyes of the people.

She said the Sri Lankan Tamil community once represented as hard working, cultured and non-violent was now represented as a community living close to criminality, feeding the international underworld of crime and being comfortable with the forces of terror.

“This saddens me greatly. Peace must come soon to Sri Lanka and not only with a federal model. It must also come with a commitment by national and international actors to transform the politics of the north and the east into a haven for democracy. “We must also learn the art of reconciliation. I have lived among Sinhalese all my life and though some are consumed by the nightmare of the Tamil “other,” they have an extraordinary capacity for generosity. Generations of Tamil politicians instead of harnessing this generosity played to Sinhalese fears and nightmares, brokering deals with Sinhalese elites without explaining their grievances and aspirations to the average Sinhalese.”

She also said that the time has come for a new politics for Sri Lanka, “where we harness the goodwill and the creative energies of our people and work towards an inclusive, plural, Sri Lankan identity. It is a long, hard, arduous task but it has to be done.”

The McGill Law Department also established a fund in memory of former TULF parliamentarian and human rights scholar Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, who was killed by the LTTE in 1999. The Fund will provide financial assistance to McGill law students who cannot meet the expenses of taking up an internship at ICES in Colombo.

Prior to receiving her award from McGill University, Dr Coomaraswamy received another prestigious human rights award from the Urban Morgan Institute of Cincinnati University, USA. This award was first awarded to Mary Robinson, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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